When under fire from both sides of a debate it’s comforting to imagine one occupies the sensible middle ground. Of course it probably just shows one hasn’t made a coherent case. I’m grateful, then, that thoughtful responses to my LAND 400 post, by armour enthusiasts, insiders, and sceptics alike, have cast such interesting light on the global-vs-regional imperatives at the heart of the next Defence white paper.
Michael Clifford and Ben James are concerned that arguments against heavy combat vehicles mistake force-protection for force-projection. Relatively low-intensity Army operations in the Middle East already occur in complex threat environments; and even future peacekeepers might need to be deployed in lethal arenas. Mitchell Yates on the other hand worries that an Army designed to be robust enough to confront any hypothetical future conflict won’t be optimised for the kind of battles it’ll actually have to fight. Even the US Army, built to smash near-peer competitors, has struggled to counter insurgents’ asymmetric tactics.
Being a radically middle-of-the-road sort of analyst, and conscious I bear no personal risk in a debate about safeguarding lives and limbs, I’m sympathetic to both arguments. All those sent into harm’s way on our behalf deserve the best OH&S protection. But over-investment of finite resources and attention in too-hardened a force would increase the risk of other forms of exposure. There’s a balance to be struck, somewhat akin to selecting strong but lightweight body armour: modular designs might tailor individual loads to particular conditions but their effectiveness depends on baseline specifications.
As a regional stability wonk, I value sufficient forces, lift, and cooperation with neighbours to meet contingencies that, in the language of risk, are both likely and consequential—or, in language of diggers, could be bloody difficult. We’ll have to lead such tasks with crucial moral, but not much practical, support from others. Conducting, say, a service-protected evacuation of thousands of nationals in the face of civil violence where docks and runways were initially unavailable wouldn’t be any easier with the heaviest combat vehicles survivable against, say, the PLA or Hezbollah.
And although ‘no amount of street violence in Dili has the potential to ruin Australia’s day’ as much as real trouble in the Middle East, expectations we’ll help address the latter commensurate with our interests, values, and capabilities, leave much choice of how to contribute. True, only a third of recent ADF deployments have been in our near neighbourhood, so the importance of proximity can be overstated, but responding to trouble close-to-home will be less discretionary than our missions to Namibia, Somalia or Western Sahara were. While we should be prepared to play a proportionate role in the Middle East for decades to come, Army is doing its bit by training Iraqi and Afghan soldiers. A self-contained contribution, more like RAAF’s air-package there, might be advantageous but isn’t strictly necessary.
So although I’d agree a balanced force remains appropriate to maximise our options in darker but still peacetime conditions, and welcome signs the Government intends to honour its pledge to raise defence spending, I see more of a continuing need to prioritise around geography than perhaps Michael and Ben do. The two additional battalions raised after regional and global crises in 2006 stretched the regular force cost $10 billion per decade. And while a pair of LHDs may provide more capability than a larger fleet of medium-sized vessels with a similar price tag, it isn’t obvious Defence knows how much amphibiosity, strategic projection, or sea transport it wants the giant ships—acquired in the afterglow of Timor—to provide. Sure, we could again find ourselves conducting stabilisation operations alongside Southeast Asian neighbours, so ignoring peer-competitor capabilities and IEDs isn’t an option. But I’d forego some hardening of our next combat vehicles to preserve the extra battalions, if forced to choose. I’d probably reverse the proportion of six standard battalions to just one initially forming the amphibious landing element too.
If such matters were solely about selecting discrete pieces of kit, Army’s incentive to protect its people and capability would get the balance right. But since Army’s Plan Beersheba must be better integrated with the other services’ plans, and as ‘the best predictor of future force structure is the current one’, overarching strategy counts too. And there, initial indications the Coalition was broadly satisfied with the strategic essay at the front of the 2013 Defence White Paper faded quickly after it gained office. The government’s inclinations, experience of hard power returning to East Asia, Europe and the Middle East, and spending plans all suggest the next edition could come down somewhere between the current ‘Defence of Australia Plus’ posture and a more radical strategic shift toward a greater emphasis on preparing the ADF to operate in distant US-led coalitions or ‘Forward Defence Reloaded’.
But a new stance won’t necessarily trigger an expansive phase for Army. An exchange between globalists and regionalists (echoing debates between expeditionary and continental schools that predate Federation) showed the ADF might contribute more to international order in uncertain times. That’s significant as independently attacking a nuclear great power—whether ‘up-threat‘ or as its forces entered our approaches—would count on its willingness to display a more gentlemanly attitude than it probably would following such seismic changes to world order. But just as US aircraft carriers bring more to war-prevention and attack subs war-fighting, our services probably don’t have equal deterrence value. Army’s contributions to coalition operations in the Middle East, signal we’re a capable country that’s willing and able to pull our weight internationally. Yet in other important theatres outside our neighbourhood, Army may simply be too small to deliver the sort of combat power and strategic weight Navy’s future submarines will, including as tangible evidence of Australia’s willingness to bear substantial military risk within an alliance framework.
A region-first-but-not-only stance might offer the best framework for advancing Australia’s security interests and drawing on the particular strengths of each service.